Things got a little more interesting on Sunday for the 5-0 Denver Broncos. As has been the case, Peyton Manning and the rest of Denver's offense lit up the scoreboard, but for the first time, the defense looked vulnerable, as the Dallas Cowboys scored 48 points and had a seven-point fourth-quarter lead.
There is an old cliche in the NFL that offense wins in the regular season, but defense wins championships. Having a good defense might as well be synonymous with winning in January, and by that standard, the Broncos and Manning will again fail to win a Lombardi Trophy.
Although oft cited, no one should take the cliche seriously because it's only a half truth. In reality, the Broncos are built to win games in January just as they are in September. Offense and defense win championships—great offense, greater defense or both.
Many people like citing tired cliches as the reason Manning hasn't been as successful in the postseason because there doesn't seem to be another explanation, but guess what?
When Manning won the Super Bowl, his Indianapolis Colts had the second-lowest-ranked defense of any Super Bowl winner since the merger, as measured by points allowed (23rd). When Manning was supported by the No. 1 defense in the NFL in 2007 and the No. 2 defense in 2005, the Colts lost in the divisional round.
By the Numbers
Since the NFL expanded to 32 teams, the average ranking of the Super Bowl champions on offense has been 9.9 compared with 9.7 on defense, which is barely any difference.
In the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, only the elite teams on offense and defense were winning the Super Bowl, with the average winner having an offense ranked 3.9 and defense ranked 4.4 in the league. I'd say it's pretty inconclusive whether defensive teams are more likely to win the Super Bowl than offensive teams, regardless of era.
We do know that only four teams in the history of the NFL have won the Super Bowl with a great offense and a defense that is below average (the stats in the opposite direction are similar but don't pertain to the Broncos). The Broncos are currently allowing 27.8 points per game—24th in the league.
The worst defense to win the Super Bowl was that of the 2011 New York Giants (ranked 25th), but the only four teams that have won the Super Bowl with below-average defenses have done so in the past seven years. From 2006 to 2012, offense has been favored over defense with an average offensive ranking of 9.4 to an average defensive ranking of 14.3 for Super Bowl winners.
In that same seven-year span, two top-five offenses won the Super Bowl and two top-five defenses won the Super Bowl. It's possible the past seven years have just been a bit of an aberration within a larger data set, just as the seven-year period prior favored the defense. From 1999 to 2005, the Super Bowl champions' average offensive rank was 9.1 and the average defensive rank was 2.3.
Again, given that, it's inconclusive whether offense or defense is more important to success in the postseason. It would seem that it's about equal. Great offenses can hide bad defenses, and great defenses can hide bad offenses. The better a team is on both sides of the ball, the better the team.
The Broncos are scoring points at a record pace, at 230 points in their first five games with a point differential that has been matched by only 10 teams since the merger—including five Super Bowl champions. It's pretty clear at this point that the Broncos have the best offense in football, so they already meet the prerequisite for winning in January.
Will having a good defense in the playoffs help the Broncos? Of course it will. If the offense and defense are both good, the whole team is better. Keep in mind also that because of the way football is played, some of the defense's performance is also reflected in the great offensive output, and vice versa.
A Traditional Approach
Are the Broncos built to win in January? Everything seems to indicate that they are, unless their defense becomes a bigger problem. By the traditional approach, the Broncos need a good defense and a running game to win in January, when inclement weather is more likely.
The defense should improve when the Broncos get back star pass-rusher Von Miller from suspension and star cornerback Champ Bailey from a foot injury. Both players are expected to return in the next couple of weeks.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), cornerback Tony Carter is the lowest-graded defensive back on the team and has been filling in for Bailey in nickel situations. Therefore, Bailey should be a big boost for Denver's defense when he finally returns.
Even though veteran linebacker Shaun Phillips is filling in admirably for Von Miller, he can't totally make up for Miller's impact on the entire defense. The Broncos also lost pass-rusher Elvis Dumervil in the offseason, and the team's sack percentage is down from 8.5 percent last year to 6.7 percent so far in 2013.
Once Miller returns, Phillips can be used to help replace Dumervil's production and the Broncos should improve drastically against the pass and run. Last season, with virtually the same players minus Dumervil, Denver's defense was fourth in points allowed and third in points per drive allowed.
The defense should round into form once it returns to near-full strength, but the running game is more of an unknown. So far in 2013, the Broncos have averaged 3.8 yards per carry, which is identical to last season and 0.5 yards per carry less than last year's Super Bowl champions.
Of the past five Super Bowl champions, only two of them averaged more than 3.8 yards per carry. The lesson? A running game in January is overrated.
If a team is a good rushing team during the regular season and that's how it scores points, it will run it in January. If the team is a good passing team like the Broncos, it is going to pass in the playoffs.
The best running teams don't appear to win any more or less in January. Four of the top five rushing teams made the playoffs last season and went 3-4, but that's also a bit deceptive because the quarterbacks were a big reason for the inflated rushing stats.
Only one of the top five rushing teams made it to the playoffs in 2010 and 2011, and both times, they were bounced in their first playoff game. Clearly, the elite rushing teams haven't even been good enough during the regular season to make the playoffs with the way the league has shifted to the passing game over the past decade.
There's no reason to believe Denver's defense won't improve once Miller and Bailey return. Even if the Broncos simply maintain their ranking, that doesn't mean they can't win in the postseason when you consider how great the offense has been.
Maybe Manning continues to struggle in the postseason, but it won't be because the team around him isn't built to win in January. If anything, the Broncos practicing at high altitude and in snowy conditions should prepare them for bad weather better than most teams.
Anything can happen in the postseason, and that's why we love to watch. The Broncos have done everything they can to build a roster that can win in January as well as in the regular season, but it's not scripted to the point that their efforts can guarantee anything (expect maybe a win over the Jacksonville Jaguars next Sunday).
The Broncos still have 11 regular-season games to worry about, but no one seems to anticipate those being a problem because there are only about three playoff teams on the schedule.
If the Broncos can beat the Indianapolis Colts, New England Patriots and Kansas City Chiefs on the road in the regular season, there's really no reason to believe they can't win in January, when they will probably be playing at home.